Hi! My name is Shanthini Namasivayam. I am sure there is nothing unusual to you in the way I introduced myself. But to me, saying my name out loud, with my head up, is a victory. Because there was a point in my life when my name, my own self and my very existence were part of a deep, depressing void. I had no hope and no means to escape my own fate. My story of victory begins at that moment in time.
I was born 19 years ago in Vahaneri, a small village in Batticaloa, the east of Sri Lanka. I had 18 siblings and a twin sister to whom I was very attached. My twin sister died early in her childhood and her death was a huge loss for me. She was my best friend and closest confidante in my huge and noisy family. To a large extent, she filled the shoes of a mother to me and I know that I meant the same to her.
My mother was a loving person, however, due to the size of our family she couldn’t offer us any time. She was either busy preparing meals for the family or preparing to give birth to the next child. As you can already imagine, we were never well off. In fact, my father’s meager earnings as a day laborer hardly sufficed to make both ends meet.
There were days when we had to go without food and hope that some charity would be there to provide meals at our school. Some days they did, other times they didn’t.
The school that I attended with my siblings was a shabby establishment with no books, little furniture and no clean drinking water or toilets. It was a dilapidated building without ventilation. Children had to go “potty” in the open grounds behind the school. This was the main reason why girls, once reaching puberty, were forced to drop out of school. Once they were out of school, the common practice was to get married. It didn’t matter that they were in their early teens… all my sisters got married very early, subject to this tyrannical custom.
The same could have happened to me if my mother wouldn’t have died and I wouldn’t have become my siblings’ caregiver. It was another big hit in my life. My mother died of cancer when I was 15 which made me responsible for caring for my younger siblings. I had been a very ambitious student in school, making the best of the opportunities I was provided with. I dreamed of pursuing an education and a career. I believed that was the only way out of the grinding poverty that was crushing me and my family. However, after the death of my mother, I dropped out of school and my home duties kept me so busy that I could barely think of the world outside. The world ceased to exist, even in my dreams. I couldn’t think of anything beyond the next meal and the next rupee. This ceaseless grind, stress and frustration caused me to develop a deep depression. I had nobody to talk to, no friend who would listen to me and nobody I could go for help to.
Around this time in my life, CERI came to my village offering skill training and support programs to the youth. This was the first time that our remote community had witnessed a substantial offer of aid. Every few years, during elections, a handful of politicians would appear with empty promises, but the villagers were skeptical of all they were saying. I started by being skeptical of what CERI was offering as well. After some persuasion by CERI staff and some of my former school teachers, I decided to attend one of the CERI sessions.
That session started a series of events that transformed my life.
The transformation did not happen overnight, rather over the span of a few months. First, I became less depressed. Then, I started hoping and, slowly, I acquired a vision for a better life, a life that would be full of joy, not just drudgery and menial work. After the sessions, I started taking sewing classes at the Sewing Center, which gave me the skills I needed for pursuing the life vision I dared to have. I participated in all the workshops and training programs that were offered by CERI, with all my dedication and fervor. This was the only opportunity in my life that I wasn’t going to miss.
My efforts paid off at the end of completing the sewing training program with CERI. I obtained a job as one of the sewing hands in a big factory near our village. The moment when they offered me that piece of paper (my employment contract) is one that I shall always remember. It wasn’t the employment, the wages or the benefits that excited me. It was the re-establishment of my self-worth, as a person, as a person of means, as a person of worth, as a person who is contributing her share to this world. It was THAT that gave me enormous happiness. And today, I can confidently introduce myself with pride – my name is Shanthini Namasivayam.
In 2017, CERI’s Transitional Care program offered life skills and vocational training to a group of 30 Sri Lankan youth. Our purpose was to equip them for independent life and empower them to pursue their dreams. To give to this program, click HERE.